By Greg Gabriel-
(CBS) Six weeks ago when we were thinking about how the Bears were going to look during the season, Sunday’s game at Atlanta was what we envisioned. We saw the offseason defensive acquisitions make plays, and Jay Cutler played to his capability.
Chicago’s 27-13 win against Atlanta was by far the best game the Bears have played in this 2014 season. Both the offense and defense were strong, and mistakes were at a minimum. While special teams made some plays, they also had some mistakes, although those weren’t costly.
Let’s break down the good and the bad.
With this being Cutler’s second year in Marc Trestman’s offense, his play yesterday was what the Bears were hoping to see all season. Is this game a sign of things to come? We’ll have to see, but he was terrific.
What helped Cutler was that his entire receiving corps was heathy. This allowed the Bears to do things on offense that they weren’t able to do earlier in the season. Cutler was able to stretch the field a lot, and his statistics were the best in his Chicago tenure.
Cutler completed 26 of 38 passes for 381 yards — his most as a Bear — and a touchdown. He didn’t force any throws, and he didn’t turn the ball over. What was even better was that he was 6-for-11 on third down for 123 yards. His efficiency allowed the Bears to win the important time of possession stat, 36:15 to 23:45.
If Cutler can play like this on a consistent basis, the Bears will be tough to beat.
Forte hasn’t had the big rushing games that we are used to seeing, but his overall production has been tremendous. On Sunday, Forte accounted for 157 total yards with two touchdowns. He’s being used more in the passing game this year with checkdowns, outlets and screens, and it’s what he does after the catch that’s impressive.
Forte caught 10 pass for 77 yards, many of those plays that kept the Bears on target with down and distance. Now that the offensive line is pretty much healthy, the rushing game has picked up. Forte had 17 carries for 80 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per rush. In today’s NFL, 4.7 yards per carry is huge. This is something the Bears have to strive to achieve every week.
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
Until Sunday, neither Marshall nor Jeffery had been 100 percent since the opening game against Buffalo. It’s no coincidence that both surpassed 100 yards receiving. Jeffery had 136 yards, while Marshall had 113. Keep both healthy, and the Bears offense will continue to put a lot of points on the board.
Overall defensive play
The Bears were down all three starters at linebacker, their starting nickel corner was out, and their free safety left early in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. With that many key players out, you had to figure Atlanta was going to put up a lot of points.
In their two previous home games this season, the Falcons had scored a combined 93 points. What’s more, their offense went into the game averaging 434 yards a game.
The undermanned Beats defense gave up a total of 287 yards and 13 points. In the 22 games that Marc Trestman has been the coach, 13 is the lowest number of points the Bears have given up. Maybe these young players deserve more playing time.
One of the reasons the defense was effective was the pass rush, which was at its best this season. The Bears got four sacks and numerous pressure and hits.
While Willie Young has been effective all season, we hadn’t seen much from Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston before Sunday. As Young had two sacks, Allen recorded his first one and Houston was able to create consistent pressure.
With defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff back from injury, the defense held Atlanta to only 42 rushing yards.
Another key player was second-year linebacker Khaseem Greene. Filling in for Lance Briggs, Greene had eight tackles and was consistently running to the ball. What seemed obvious was that the linebackers were playing much faster than their injured veteran teammates.
Another thing that stood out to me was defensive coordinator Mel Tucker calling a more aggressive game. The Bears seemed to blitz more, create pressure and force Atlanta into mistakes. The secondary was extremely aggressive in their play, and that may have attributed to at least six dropped passes by Atlanta receivers.
Punt and kickoff coverage
Kicking to Devin Hester can be a scary proposition. The Bears’ coverage units did an outstanding job limiting Hester, who had two punt returns for a total of 10 yards and two kickoff returns for 44 yards. Hester was never given the opportunity to get into space.
The player who jumped out on kick coverage was reserve cornerback Teddy Williams, whose speed getting downfield had a lot to do with the outstanding play of the coverage units.
Every week we talk about special teams, and while the kick coverage was excellent, there were other facets of Chicago’s special teams play that were poor.
Robbie Gould had an extra point attempt blocked. On extra points, if a kick gets blocked, it’s usually because of inside pressure. That’s exactly what happened Sunday. Atlanta overloaded on one side, and two linemen were able to get penetration. One of the two got his hands up and blocked the kick. On an extra point, that’s inexcusable.
The other area that still needs work is the return game. The Bears didn’t return a kickoff past the 20-yard line. Chris Williams had two returns for a total of 35 yards. On punt returns, the total yardage was minus-1 on two returns by Santonio Holmes. The Bears punt return unit was also flagged for an illegal block. It seems the punt return unit gets hit with at least one illegal block call every week.
Bennett had another strong game with four receptions for 52 yards. He also was credited with at least one drop, and there were two other throws that he got his hands on and should have caught. One would have been a touchdown. The usually reliable Bennett has to improve his concentration.
How can the Bears’ pass protecting be a negative when Cutler passed for 381 yards? Going into the game, the Falcons had only four sacks in five games. On Sunday, they had three sacks — though on the last one, Cutler intentionally took the sack.
Still, for the better part of three quarters, Atlanta generated some pressure and forced Cutler to move. Once offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod is back in the lineup, this should be rectified. Last year, the Bears started the same offensive line for all 16 games. They haven’t had their starting unit in place since Week 1.
In saying that, credit has to go out to rookie Michael Ola, who has had to start five games this season at either guard or tackle and has more than held his own. He has become an extremely valuable reserve because of both his play and position versatility.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who has been an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.